Why I Subscribed to the National Post

[Yesterday was the second anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. That means I’ve had a subscription to the National Post for almost two years. I wrote this a year ago, but now seems a good moment to put it up here.]

I grew up reading The Globe and Mail. Sometime in the mid- to late eighties, I began copying my parents, and began reading the paper before heading off to school. Often I would return to it in the evenings. In university, my grandmother gave me a subscription, and I kept on reading. I can still remember certain headlines, certain pictures, and above all, certain editorial cartoons (having now read papers in seven countries, I think the Globe’s Brian Gable is the best anywhere). Having grown up with it, I have long had a certain sentimental fondness for the paper. I was, and would remain, a Globe reader for life.

At some point in the nineties, I became aware that another national newspaper was going to start up soon. Bankrolled by the owners of a very large chunk of the Canadian press, it was to be called The National Post. It would provide a conservative alternative to the Globe, and would have all the advantages that its owners’ deep pockets could provide. From the start, I regarded it with a kind of horror, not only because I was appalled by its conservative standpoint, but also because I worried about the harm it might do to the paper I’d grown up with. I remember taking people to task for subscribing to the Post; on at least one occasion I went without the day’s news because only the Post was available (and the fact that it only it was available on that occasion somehow made me feel that evil and dishonourable machinations were at work). I was, after all, a Globe reader, for life.

This past year something changed that. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings, newspapers everywhere were confronted with a question: would they print the cartoons? In France and in Germany, the focus seemed to be on the matter of principle: freedom itself, the bedrock of our society – indeed, of our civilisation – was under attack, and now was the time to stand up for it. In Germany it seemed that every paper reprinted some of the cartoons (if not always the most offensive). One paper had an entire pull-out section with dozens of reprints of Charlie Hebdo covers, some featuring Mohammed, some not. Another reprinted a Hebdo cartoon of Mohammed, but pasted him into their own background, so that he was taking a bath in blood. In France, while so many papers reprinted the cartoons, it was noted in several that virtually the entire press in les pays anglo-saxons (i.e., the English-speaking world) was not printing anything from Charlie Hebdo.

With a few (generally right-wing) exceptions, in Canada, the US and Britain, people who wanted to know exactly what all the fuss was about had to turn to the internet. This situation was not necessarily indefensible. There are two main reasons why editors might have preferred not to publish the cartoons. The first was summed up memorably by Boris Johnson: “about 10 years ago, the whole Danish cartoon controversy blew up – and I remember distinctly concluding that I would never have published them in The Spectator, which I edited, not just because they were gratuitously inflammatory, but because I didn’t see how I could justify my decision to the widows and orphans of my staff, in the event of an attack on our offices.” In other words, we might be moved by fear, perhaps rightly. The second reason is the desire to respect others, and the further pragmatic reflection that if we want to live in peace with others, a posture of conciliation will help us do so. This standpoint sees publishing the cartoons as not only be wrong it itself by virtue of its failure to live up to the civilised ideal of polite regard for others, but also as undermining our hope of peace in the future by provoking further violent acts.

The Globe, along with much of Canada’s English-speaking press (and in contrast to much of French-speaking press) did not print the cartoons. On January 8th, 2015, an editorial explained why. In addition to an argument to the effect that actually seeing the cartoons was not necessary to understand the story, the reason came down to a matter of principle: “we hadn’t published the cartoons before the slaughter and our editorial position remains the same today.” The decision attracted some criticism from readers, particularly online. Three days later came a second justification of the paper’s decision. It was the worst editorial I have ever read.

This second editorial seemed to me not to be altogether consistent. On the one hand, it continued the principled stand of its predecessor: “we made the same decision in 2006 after a Danish magazine was threatened by extremists for publishing cartoons depicting Mohammed as a terrorist. Both decisions were made in accordance with the newspaper’s beliefs and values.” That is, the decision was a matter of maintaining a consistent principle, of standing firm and refusing to be moved by the violence of current events. To say this is precisely to say that the Globe was not moved in this decision by fear.

The editorial, however, contained remarks that seemed to point in another direction: the Globe’s critics, we were told, “have nothing on the line as they gleefully accuse the media of heinous shortcomings in the emotional aftermath of the murders of most of Charlie Hebdo’s senior editorial masthead.” To say that your critics “have nothing on the line” is to draw attention, albeit indirectly, to the fact that you, by contrast, do have something on the line. That is, the appeal here is “you may be criticising us, but we’re the ones who face violent consequences if we publish the cartoons and things go badly. Put yourself in our shoes, and see how that makes you feel (and just now we’re going to mention that most of Charlie Hebdo’s senior editors were killed).” This line is continued a moment later, when it is said of critics, “how incredibly easy. How crass and pompous.” That is, incredibly easy for you… This line of thought invites us to consider: if you were an editor thinking about publishing those cartoons in that context, how would you feel? There’s only one answer: afraid. The appeal is unmistakably to fear. To act out of fear is precisely not to stand on principle.

So in the middle of a defense of the principled and consistent stand taken by the paper’s editors, we are pointed at something quite different from principle and consistency: fear. The argument is something like this: “we stand unflinchingly on principle, unmoved by fear, and anyway, we’re afraid – wouldn’t you be afraid?”

I don’t pass judgment on the editors at the Globe and Mail for being afraid. As they remind me, I don’t have the right to: I’m not running a newspaper; I’m not in their shoes. What I absolutely do judge them is on the terrible job they did of explaining themselves, on the back-handed way in which they introduced fear into the argument, stooping to name-calling at the very moment they were showing that their appeal to principle was nonsense. Because here’s the thing: you can’t stand unflinchingly on principle and act out of fear. It’s either one or the other.

What hit me like a tons of bricks, however, was the fact that the episode brought another historical era to mind. High-sounding declarations of principle on the surface, while an unspoken fear lies underneath, driving behaviour? I had seen this before: this was appeasement.

The word ‘appeasement,’ of course, refers to that period in the thirties, when the Western democracies wanted so desperately to avoid a second world war, and so failed to stand up to Hitler as he went from a cartoon character to a terrifying and almost unstoppable force. Like the editors of the Globe, of course, nobody wants to be seen to be moved by fear – or to see themselves this way – so when we read the words of the appeasers of the thirties, we often find appeals to high-sounding principles. The need for conciliation and trust, the importance of admitting our own mistakes and injustices, the great virtue of universal peace – these are the sorts of appeals we find again and again. You can also find a rather desperate willingness to trust this new Hitler fellow. After all, if you’re intent on building a world on trust rather than violence, you have to be able to trust the other guy. People like Churchill who warned about and criticised Hitler were put under tremendous pressure to stop doing so, and were denied platforms in many places (wouldn’t want to provoke another war).

The appeasement in the thirties was not only a moral failure. It also made the world far less safe – indeed, the appeasers can be said to have caused the second world war in a very real sense. There was never anyone easier to stop than Hitler.

That Globe editorial caused a paradigm shift for me. Suddenly appeasement was not a far-off phenomenon from the pages of history, like the Spanish armada or the Athenian empire. Suddenly it was a defining characteristic of our own times. In addition, I found myself conscious of something I had never felt in my life, almost a sensation in its intensity: I felt ashamed to be Canadian. I was in Germany, where the press had decided, virtually as one, to stand for something, if only for a moment. The French were doing the same thing. And what did the English-speaking world, Canada, and above all, the paper I had grown up with do? They chose to be moved by fear, all the while making high-sounding declarations of principle. They chose appeasement. The National Post chose another path, so suddenly subscribing to it seemed positively like a duty. It also began to occur to me that having this other national newspaper, with a substantially different point of view, might not be such a bad thing after all.

The path of appeasement was not the only one available. Consider what Dan Hodges, at the Daily Telegraph, wrote: “just before I started this piece I was about to tweet the picture of the cartoon of the prophet Muhammad published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. I was going to do it ‘in solidarity’. And then I stopped. I stopped because I was scared.” That is a contribution, because it gets the fact of fear out there. Hodges can’t feel good about himself in the way that the Globe editors can, because he admits that he’s not acting on the basis of some great principle, he admits he’s acting from fear. But the first step in dealing with fear is to admit it’s there, and so Dan Hodges performed a service by making it a matter of record that there is now a climate of fear, and that people are changing their behaviour because of it. The Globe didn’t even do that. I don’t think that the paper I grew up with would have made the same decision, but I’m quite certain they would have done a better job of explaining themselves.

As appeasement in the thirties made us all less safe, so too does it have the same effect today. We have given way: there now exists an unspoken ban on certain words and pictures where Islam is concerned. Charlie Hebdo is not going to draw the prophet in the future, and the same is true of the Jyllands-Posten. They can hardly be blamed; they’ve done their bit. But when even the freedom of speech fanatics aren’t going to do it, the rest of us certainly cannot.

And we need freedom of speech fanatics. It is the bedrock, the foundation, the sine qua non of everything else we value, of our way of life. For example, freedom of speech is prior to feminism, because feminism is only possible in a society in which basic cultural norms can be safely challenged. Notoriously, when Mary Wollstonecraft put her arguments to certain men in the 18th century, they just laughed at her. But consider what they did not do: they did not throw acid in her face, nor did they stone her or beat her to death. Since the turn of the century, we’ve become conscious of the fact that there do exist societies where such things happen. In the end, the difference comes down to freedom of speech. One could pile up similar examples at some length. (And see David Paxton’s piece on this whole business, which I thought made some good points. Also this: some good stuff on that blog.)

I suspect that the difference between the reaction of the English-speaking world and that of the Germans or the French is to be explained to some degree by a cultural difference: the French and the Germans tend to see the principle more readily, and to act on it; the English-speaking tendency is to focus more on the particular situation at hand. From the latter perspective, one can see why it might not seem so important to print the pictures. After all, by doing so, one doesn’t seem to accomplish all that much, while the danger might be quite real. All the same, a matter of principle is at stake, and principles really do matter. As Thucydides has Pericles say, “this trifle contains the whole seal and trial of your resolution. If you give way, you will instantly have to meet some greater demand, as having been frightened into obedience in the first instance.”


Some Thoughts on the Use of Statistics in Ethical Matters

Some months ago, I was discussing Donald Trump’s election chances with a couple of friends, and I happened to mention a voter I had read about somewhere, a young man in California, who described himself as a feminist. He was concerned about the power of false rape allegations to destroy the lives of men, and was on that account leaning towards a vote for Trump. I said that while I didn’t sympathise with the vote, I certainly understood and sympathised with the concern behind it. One friend responded that such false accusations were surely statistically far less significant than real cases of the crime itself that go unpunished. The other friend agreed, and that seemed to settle the matter, at least for the two of them.

For me, well, it got me thinking. I have since found myself noticing how arguments that proceed by means of statistics are often used as though they provide a sort of final knock-down in ethical matters, unanswerable and definitive – and yet this is something they can almost never provide.

To see why, let’s indulge for a moment in a bit of philosophy. Most undergraduates who have done a philosophy course should have some idea about what utilitarianism is. We can define it as the principle that the greatest good should be done for the greatest number of people possible. Our undergraduates should also have some idea of a potential problem with utilitarianism: it is compatible with an acceptance of radical evil, provided, of course, that the evil is done to a minority. You could literally exterminate people while achieving the greatest good for the greatest number. (The responses of major utilitarian philosophers to this problem is something we can leave aside here.)

Now here’s why I bring this up: it seems to me that the sort of claims you can make with statistics are precisely the sort made by utilitarianism. Statistics give us a coarse overview of a subject; they tell us that something is the case on the whole, and for the most part. And to the extent that we confine ourselves to this view, we open up the possibility of radical evil, so long as it is done to a relatively small number of people. So if we’re going to commit ourselves to statistical state of affairs as a desirable aim of policy or activity, we should think quite clearly about what we’re actually advocating.

In the case I began with, we are indeed dealing with a readiness to do real evil to innocent people in the name of achieving what is taken to be a statistically desirable result. Feminist activists often speak as if the purpose of the justice system is to bring about a certain proportion of convictions relative to the number of complaints made. That is, they claim that only a very small fraction of rape accusations result in convictions, and that this small proportion indicates a failure on the part of the justice system. The implicit aim is a system that produces convictions in some much larger proportion, say, 50% or 98% (though I have never seen an actual number given). There is no room in such calculations for the possibility that the lives of innocents might be utterly destroyed by baseless accusations. Indeed, that a callous indifference to the possibility of crushing innocent people is in fact at work here is confirmed by such well-known cases as the Duke lacrosse team rape trial, or the travesty of reporting about another such supposed crime that Rolling Stone committed. If we were to follow the statistical point of view to its logical endpoint, the proper question to ask is not about the guilt or innocence of the accused at all, but simply whether or not the appropriate number of guilty verdicts have been delivered so far relative to the overall number of accusations.

The purpose of a justice system worthy of the name, however, is not to produce a statistical result, but rather to answer a specific question: what is the truth of the matter in this particular case? Such an approach is not likely to produce the most pleasing proportion of guilty and innocent verdicts, and is likely to fall short of its goal regularly, but it allows the rights of accuser and accused to be balanced against one another. Perhaps most importantly, it keeps the justice system, as much as possible, from the active commission of injustice. The words primum nil nocere – “first, do no harm” – are supposed to apply to doctors, but they should be a principle of the justice system no less.

Certainly statistics might inform and guide us in subsidiary ways, but only to the extent that we observe the more important principle of a system that does not itself do active harm to the innocent. When discussing ethical matters, then, we should always be cautious when confronted by arguments that proceed only on the basis of statistics.

Statistics are dangerous in other ways, too. They can give a seductive, but misleading impression of being simply factual; they can seem to clothe a particular view in the robes of science, giving it an apparently insuperable status in comparison with non-statistical arguments. (I’m reading a book right now that seems to suffer from this very failing; a blog post reviewing it will probably follow in the weeks to come.)

Of course, statistics can be massaged, and where crime is concerned it is clear that they often are massaged. Consider Rainer Wendt, federal head of the German Police Union: “if I, as a senior officer, want narcotics-related crime to go down in my city, then I send the officers responsible for it out to police [vehicle] traffic infringements. Then I promise you, that narcotics crime will go down – at least statistically.”

In fact, things may be far worse than Wendt’s words suggest. There is reason to believe that the arrival of statistics-based crime fighting has corrupted our justice system in a most fundamental manner. Here I will allow Theodore Dalrymple to speak, as he relates his wife’s attempt to report a crime:

She noticed some youths setting fire to the contents of a dumpster just outside our house, a fire that could easily have spread to cars parked nearby. She called the police.

“What do you expect us to do about it?” they asked.

“I expect you to come and arrest them,” she said.

The police regarded this as a bizarre and unreasonable expectation. They refused point-blank to send anyone. Of course, if they had promised to make every effort to come quickly but had arrived too late, or even not at all, my wife would have understood and been satisfied. But she was not satisfied with the idea that youths could set dangerous fires without arousing even the minimal interest of the police. Surely, some or all of the youths would conclude that they could do anything they liked, and move on to more serious crimes.

My wife then insisted that the police should at least place the crime on their records. Again, they refused. She remonstrated with them at length, and at considerable cost to her equanimity. At last, and with the greatest reluctance, they recorded the crime and gave her a reference number for it.

This was not the end of the matter. About 15 minutes later, a more senior policeman telephoned to upbraid her and tell her she had been wasting police time with her insistence on satisfaction in so trivial a matter. The police, apparently, had more important things to do than suppress arson. …

It is not difficult to guess the reason for the senior policeman’s anger. My wife had forced his men to record a crime that they had no intention whatever of even trying to solve (though, with due expedition, it was eminently soluble), and this record in turn meant the introduction of an unwanted breath of reality into the bogus statistics, the manufacture of which is now every British senior policeman’s principal task.

Once the job of the police is to fight crime statistics rather than crime, the possibility of almost infinite corruption has been opened up – indeed, a motivation for corruption has been provided.

As one reads other Dalrymple essays, one encounters similar episodes: police refusing to respond to crime, or even to record it – or, alternately, responding to minor infractions, committed by individuals likely to respond to the authority of the police, rather than to violent crimes committed by people likely to respond in a violent manner (e.g., here or here or here).

Statistics, then, will not only fail in most cases to provide a decisive argument when considering ethical matters, they can also be the cause of great harm. Any insight they provide has to be balanced against direct contact with the problem in question. Localism – taking power away form massive bureaucracies and putting it in the hands of smaller communities – would no doubt be helpful. The more I read Dalrymple, and the more I read of the views of police officers in England, America and in Germany, the more I think that policy on criminal matters should never be allowed to be made on the basis of statistics alone, and that there should be a requirement that people who deal directly with crime are given some substantive power in the production of that policy.

And while I’m dreaming, I’d also like a private jet.